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Hemings' kin hold Monticello reunion

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - At the call for pictures, members of Thomas Jefferson's family and descendants of his slaves once again crowded between columns of the president's hilltop estate of Monticello to hug for the cameras.

But unlike previous reunions, the smiles this weekend remained after the cameras stopped.

Weary of arguing with Jefferson family leaders who never accepted their claims of kinship, slave descendants started their own reunion this summer.

"We just got tired of people saying, "We don't want you here,"' said Michele Cooley, a slave descendant from Baltimore who helped organize the event.

Monticello has been a chilly place during the past few years for the descendants of Sally Hemings, a servant of Jefferson's who many believe was his mistress.

Since a genetic link was established between the Hemingses and Jeffersons in 1998, Jefferson family members have sponsored studies that dispute Hemings family ties to the third president and refused them membership in the family's exclusive Monticello Association.

The debate over the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings grew so nasty at a Jefferson family reunion sponsored by the Monticello Association that some Jefferson family members who supported the Hemingses vowed never to come back. Twelve of them came this weekend.

"Frankly, I think a lot of my family would have more fun if they came to this one," said Jefferson descendant David Works.

The reunion this weekend was exactly what slave descendants like Mary Esther Jefferson always wanted: "No politics, no note taking, nobody waving the Roberts Rules of Order at us."

The 115 attendees clambered up the mountainside to walk through the estate their ancestors helped build. They viewed slave burial sites and traded old family photos of common ancestors.

"Welcome home," said Dan Jordan, who runs the nonprofit Monticello Foundation that owns Monticello. The Monticello Foundation is separate from the Monticello Association.

While a genetic link with Jefferson's family has been shown in only one of Sally Hemings' sons, Eston, many of the other families assert they are related, too.

Monticello Association president Nat Abeles said the Hemingses will be excluded from family business until they can prove their lineage to Thomas Jefferson with DNA. Until then, their family reunions are probably best kept separate, he said. "I'm glad they're happy now," Abeles said.

John Works Sr., a Monticello Association member who claims lineage to one of Jefferson's daughters, said he hopes the group will eventually accept the Hemingses.

"Nobody has proof, really, of direct descendancy to Thomas Jefferson," he said. "But look around ... everyone is exchanging information and getting to know each other. That's what a family reunion is supposed to be about."

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